As the 229th anniversary of the founding of the American experiment approached, President Bush provided a painful reminder of how far the United States has drifted from the ideals of her youth.
Speaking to soldiers who would soon be dispatched to occupy Iraq, Bush sounded an awfully lot like the King George against whom George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the other revolutionaries of 1776 led their revolt.
America was founded in opposition to empire. The Declaration of Independence was a manifesto against colonialism. And the wisest of the founding generations abhorred imperialism.
Their opposition to empire was not merely rooted in their own bitter experience. It was, as well, rooted in a faith that American freedoms and democracy would suffer if the nation embarked upon a career of empire.
So, while Bush suggests that other lands must be occupied to preserve liberty at home, the patriots of our time recall will do well to recall words spoken on another July 4.
When America was younger and truer to her ideals, on Independence Day, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams appeared before the US House of Representatives and declared:
And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind?
Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.
She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.
She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.
She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.
She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right.
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.
But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.
She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.
She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force….
She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….
[America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.
John Nichols’s new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, “At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.” Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, “Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial.” Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com